What can I say about an album by a band whose members admit they didn’t have fun recording it? Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi publicly declared that the process of recording Angles was “just awful.” I guess Valensi wasn’t a fan of vocalist Julian Casablancas’s emailing in his vocal tracks. Literally. Casablancas, who comes off as one of the most smug pricks in all of modern music in every interview I’ve ever read with him, claims that he remained deliberately distant in order to “force the initiative,” whatever the fuck that means. Casablancas, in an epic-level act of passive aggression, called this tactic “Operation Make Everyone Satisfied” and if that’s the way he likes to satisfy people, I sure as shit hope he never gets married.
So I’m not gonna mince words, kids: Angles sucks. It is, by a wide margin, the worst Strokes album and Julian Casablancas’s vocals are easily the weakest link on it. No one can blame the Strokes for wanting to expand beyond the sound of their first two albums (although I was listening to Is This It? and Room On Fire the other day and they’re both quite good, in my humble opinion), but when Casablancas reaches for the rafters vocally, as he does all over Angles, he becomes strident and irritating, a tone that he usually reserves for interviews.
It’s telling to me that the best (read: “only remotely listenable”) tracks on Angles would fit in just fine on the first two Strokes records (I find two songs on the album to be kind of okay: “Taken for a Fool” and the Billy Joel cover “Gratisfaction.”). But then I don’t think the Strokes were ever going to succeed at pushing their sound. The most notable thing about what Pitchfork calls That Strokes Sound to me is that they always sounded like they didn’t give a shit, and you don’t change that just by nicking some pseudo-reggae licks for horrible songs like “Machu Picchu.” The sonic textures are different, but it seems to me that the Strokes – especially Casablancas – have never cared less about what they’re doing.
Some of the songs have good bits (like the harmonies on “Under Cover of Darkness”), but most of them are shanked in the kidneys by Casablancas’s bloody terrible singing. “You’re So Right” is possibly the worst Strokes song ever and it doesn’t even have the most annoying vocal take on Angles. That dubious honor should probably go to “Two Kinds of Happiness” or “Games.” Casablancas is so wildly inconsistent on this album, that he manages to fuck up a lot of otherwise promising songs (the guitar on “Two Kinds of Happiness” is kind of like what the Edge would sound like if he were a guitar player and not a computer programmer).
Valensi has already said that the Strokes have a better album in them, but he’s also said he won’t do another album if the process is the same as it was for Angles. Honestly, I don’t know how he (and the rest of the band) didn’t just beat the living shit out of Julian Casablancas. Casablancas would have you believe that he was trying to democratize the process by keeping his distance; he was apparently worried that his radiant presence in the studio would lead the others to “wait for me to say something.” But he also says that Angles contains “a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have done.” Look here, you spoiled, arrogant little shit: if you’re in a band, you’re in the fucking band. Your name is on the album and you’re part of what people are spending their goddamn money to hear. So you can try to let yourself off the hook by saying there’s stuff on this album that you “wouldn’t have done” but the fact remains that it is wall-to-wall stuff you definitely did fucking do. Asshole.
If I seem like I’m being a little hard on Julian Casablancas, it’s because I think he committed an all-time Dick Move in his approach to making Angles. If he really thought the other band members where ceding too much control to him in the studio, he should have fucking shown up and said so. If you can’t look your bandmates in the eyes and say, “Guys, I want you to have more input,” then you should tear your spine out and donate it to a needy child, because you’re better off being a jellyfish. Casablancas, whatever his motive, did the twenty-first century equivalent of literally phoning in his job. For those of you keeping score at home, his job is being a singer in an immensely popular rock band.
Imagine if I took the Casablancas Approach to my job working with people with disabilities. I would send a vaguely worded email to my boss saying something to the effect of “If I show up to work tomorrow, you’ll just expect me to push your wheelchair around and feed you and do all the stuff I normally do. You know, for my job. But I want our work together to be more democratic, so you push your chair a bit and I’ll just email you every so often to see how things are going. You’re welcome.” I’d be fired. And rightfully so.
It’s hard (read: “impossible”) for me to see what Casablancas thought he was going to accomplish here. If there’s a bunch of stuff on Angles that he wouldn’t have done, was his goal to let the other Strokes run buck-wild in the studio and churn out a shitty record so that they’d return to him, prodigal son style, and beg him to start calling all the shots again? And if that was his goal, doesn’t that make him a massive dickhole? Or does he think that, now that he did as little as he could to help them (short of not singing at all), he can return to the studio for Strokes Album Number Five and find a warm, democratic environment wherein he and his fellow Strokes can really work on songs as a single unit, politely debating the merits of every single song? Because
it makes total sense that the other members of his band would understand fully and even pardon his near-nonparticipation in Angles if he just thought he was doing what was best for them. You know, so they could really grow together. that would still make him a massive dickhole.
As I usually do when writing about albums, I’ve read some of the other reviews of Angles and, while very few are gushy (this review tries way too hard to justify this album’s existence, but the writer is clearly a bigger Strokes fan than I am), I haven’t seen any yet that take as dim a view of the album as I do. Obviously, the Casablancas Approach to vocal recording galls me to no end, but the music matters the most to me and Angles is so infuriatingly inconsistent (nearly every good bit, save for two songs, is subverted by a shitty bit) that it’s impossible for me to recommend it. The band’s (and especially Casablancas’s) ambivalence toward the music is clearly evident and while their lead singer’s inherent dickishness might be to blame for that, we can blame the entire band for expecting us to pay for music about which they themselves don’t give much of a shit.